Executive Education

Peer Talk Profile: Oscar Romero

What do you do when your executive-level colleagues working on the finance side at your company raise questions that are outside your area of expertise? Questions such as, “What’s the individual rate of return?” or “What are our opportunity costs?”

If you’re Oscar Romero, a Chicago-based legal executive, then you enroll in the Chicago Management Institute (CMI) at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and you learn how to bring The Chicago Approach™ to your company.

“So many of those terms were familiar to me, but still somewhat abstract,” says Romero, a participant who completed the program in 2014. “And that’s what CMI was able to do for me. It closed that blind spot. CMI was able to take all of these unorganized nuggets of experience that I had and put them in a nice, neat framework.”

Romero works as general counsel for Credit First National Association (CFNA), a private label credit card bank and credit provider in the automotive service and tire industry. CFNA, which is part of Bridgestone Retail Operations, LLC, serves more than 6,000 merchants and more than 4.6 million cardholders nationwide.

Romero’s role at CFNA, however, reaches beyond what one might expect of a typical general counsel. He manages five direct reports and is the lead attorney for the company’s original equipment group, which sells tires to auto manufacturers. He’s also the lead support attorney for CFNA’s international Olympics project, and at his company he regularly gets pulled into projects that revolve around intellectual property transactions, data and consumer privacy issues, and anti-bribery.

Although he has accumulated more than 20 years of experience in the field of legal services, Romero didn’t originally intend on practicing law. His original plan, he says, was to get an MBA and JD, focusing more on business rather than legal work. Despite being diverted from that career trajectory, Romero says he came to understand that the further he progressed in his career, the more necessary it would be for him to expand his business skills.

“While my main responsibilities fall under the legal realm, the further you progress on the legal side of any organization the more you get involved with the business,” he says. “And you almost have to be careful to differentiate when you’re giving legal advice or when you’re giving business advice.”

He continues: “That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to go through this CMI program. I wanted to refine those skills and understand the business side of it better so that I could provide more appropriate advice.”

Romero recalls a recent situation at CFNA when the knowledge he gained at Booth was applicable. An executive committee met to discuss whether to move forward with a project, and Romero presented to the committee a present value calculation on a potential investment—numbers he had generated on a website that one of his professors had recommended in class. Romero’s analysis showed his colleagues that moving forward with the project would be a bad investment for his company.

“I think everyone in the room was surprised that the lawyer in the room was running these numbers, and I think they were surprised with how spot-on the analysis was,” Romero says, noting that the committee was trying to reach a decision based on their gut instinct and the politics of the organization. Ultimately, the committee decided to shelve the project and move forward with something else—a different project that, it turns out, had a higher reward.

“The numbers were pretty clear,” Romero says. “And I think at the end of the day that was the deciding factor in the direction that we took.”

Like any general counsel working in his field, risk analysis plays a critical role in his work. Which, of course, begs the question: When he was considering Booth, did he see any risk with attending?

“It was a risk from a standpoint that I was committing to my organization that I am open to business roles,” says Romero, who notes that one of his favorite CMI classes was The Power Beyond Negotiation. “When you’ve operated as a legal counsel for 20-plus years, and all of a sudden you’re venturing into this new space, that presents somewhat of a risk. But that’s what I wanted to do, and it was the completion of my original career path.”

In addition to his work at CFNA, Romero mentors students and young and mid-level professionals, and he serves on multiple nonprofit and charitable boards. His work in the community led to him receiving the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois Community Outreach award. And Romero admits that the framework model Booth teaches is directly applicable both in the community and in his work as general counsel for CFNA.

“For me, going to Booth was a game-changer,” Romero says. “I looked at a couple of other programs, and I felt that Booth was the most responsive and the most attentive to my needs. And that continues to this day.”

Hear more from Oscar Romero about the Chicago Management Institute »